One conclusion I reached after completing my study of our graduates is that it is of importance to discuss the nature of “publics” and of “public writing,” both in general education composition courses and in courses for majors enrolled in programs that emphasize the development of writing ability. Too often I suspect that both students and their instructors carry around an antiquated or half-formed notion of the public, some vague image (at least for people of a certain age) of an abbreviated, mustachioed man wearing specs and a fedora. Writers who possess a particular form of ambition dedicate themselves to reaching the great mass, the public. For people who came of age before the Internet fully bloomed, this conception is understandable. Writing was only exposed to larger audiences, rather than to a small group of private or commercial acquaintances, after proceeding through a series of filters, and the work of the great majority of people who wrote one thing or the other never made it through those filters, editors and other forms of gatekeepers.
Now we find that even what we thought to make intentionally private can easily become public; that is, exposed to strangers. And the avenues for “publishing” one’s writing on the Internet, first via web pages and more recently via web logs and social networking sites has continuously expanded. So now, when writing, it often becomes a matter of discovering a public, or seeking to create one. When it comes to a blog like this one, an attempt to discover, if not a larger then at least a more diverse audience than the material might otherwise attract, there are a variety of steps one can take to try to create a public. Here are a few I have tried so far:
· Send e-mails to dozens of people—participants in the study, former students, current and former colleagues, people you suspect may at least have some interest in the subject matter. In these e-mails I have placed a link to the blog, so that a potential reader can reach the material with a single mouse click. Or close the e-mail, perhaps, in a worst-case scenario, because they suspect it might contain something harmful and could cripple their normal interactions in cyber-space.
· Suggest to the same “targets” that they place the blog on an RSS feed, so they won’t have to go back to it unless notified that something new has been posted.
· Put up the links to other blogs and web sites, because they seem related to your own interests and postings, and because it is the right thing to do if you ever are to hope that they will do the same for you.
· Hope that you generate enough traffic to warrant an appearance on an increasing number of search engine pages, so that both the purposeful and the casual surfer might occasionally be moved to pay a visit.
I am still relatively new to this mode of creating a public, and the list above is, I am sure, by no means exhaustive. Our students may, on the other hand, swim in a sea in which the distinctions between what was thought of as the private and the public have been irreversibly blurred. As teachers, we should, perhaps, reacquaint them with that distinction, with the idea that, when we write, we may consciously seek to establish a “relation among strangers,” (Warner 74), rather than to have it happen accidentally, as part of the surveillant or voyeuristic form that reading on the Web can often take. Publics, according to the critical theorist Michael Warner, “lacking any institutional being, commence with the moment of attention, must continually predicate renewed attention, and cease to exist when attention is no longer predicated” (88). Whether I succeed in forming a public whose attention is sustained for any length of time, or whether attentiveness flickers out like a bulb with a damaged filament, moments after the switch has been flicked, remains to be seen. But at least I am conscious of what I am trying to do, and have some conviction concerning why the attempt should be made. We want our students to at least possess that level of consciousness.
The graduates I interviewed are engaging a variety of publics, as our ongoing series of profiles will reveal. Some have been formed through the attention called forth by an organization or a publication to which they contribute. Others are actively seeking to do what I have described above, to call a public into being.
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005.